Coming off the most successful regular season in school history, the last thing Murray State needs is a second straight early exit from the Ohio Valley Conference tournament.
The top-seeded and No. 12 Racers look to avoid that fate Friday night in Nashville when they begin their quest for a 15th tournament title with a semifinal contest against Tennessee Tech, the team that knocked them out of the event last season.
Joining Kentucky and Syracuse as the only one-loss teams in the nation, Murray State (28-1) set a school record for most regular-season victories en route to its third straight OVC title. The Racers recorded that record-setting victory with a 69-64 win at Tennessee Tech on Saturday to finish 15-1 in league play.
Though the Racers have won five straight since losing to Tennessee State on Feb. 9, OVC coach of the year Steve Prohm and his squad know there is more to accomplish.
"They're competitors, so they're going to be ready to play," he said. "They want to try to win a championship.''
Murray State's 14 league tournament titles are the most in the history of the event, with the last coming in 2010. However, the Racers were the top seed in 2011 and earned the double bye into the semifinals where Tennessee Tech pulled a 64-59 upset that ultimately kept them out of the NCAA tournament.
That result is Murray State's lone loss to the Golden Eagles in the team's last eight meetings. The Racers beat Tennessee Tech 82-74 at home Jan. 14, then overcame a four-point halftime deficit to win the regular-season finale. Murray State prevailed in those contests despite shooting a combined 41.4 percent and committing 26 turnovers.
Those numbers don't mean much to Golden Eagles' coach Steve Payne, who knows first-hand the challenge his team faces.
"They're a fantastic team," Payne said. "They're well-coached, they're smart, they play together really good offensively and I think they're really physical.''
Conference player of the year Isaiah Canaan (19.4 points per game) totaled 42 points against the Golden Eagles this season. The junior guard, however, has averaged 9.8 in four tournament games. He had five on 1-of-7 shooting off the bench in last season's tournament loss.
The fourth-seeded Golden Eagles (19-12), who finished 9-7 in the OVC during the regular season, led by 15 at halftime but needed to rally for a 77-73 quarterfinal victory over Southeast Missouri State on Thursday. Zac Swansey's 3-pointer with 21 seconds left broke a 70-all tie as Tennessee Tech came out ahead after Southeast Missouri used a 32-9 run to take a four-point lead with a little more than 2 minutes left.
"Anytime you win, it is a good game this time of year," Payne said. "You don't want to be too picky right now."
Kevin Murphy scored 24 points and Swansey added 12 assists as the Golden Eagles shot 58.0 percent.
Murphy, who averaged a league-high 20.6 points during the regular season, had 26 against the Racers last weekend. The senior, who scored 19 in last season's tournament victory over Murray State, needs 19 points to become the 16th player in OVC history to reach 2,000 for his career.